OP-ED: Digging up the past

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From The Miami Herald (MCT)

Sometimes, only by unearthing the skeletons of a tortured past can they be given a proper burial. That is what is happening in Marianna, in North Florida, literally and figuratively.

A team of researchers, including anthropologists, archeologists, students and police detectives are searching, painstakingly, for the remains of young boys once confined to the Dozier School for Boys. Dozens of them died in state custody in the “reform” school and were buried without dignity, without notice to the next of kin, without a trace.

It was an infamous “school” that opened in 1900 and closed just two years ago.

It will take the researchers many months to get answers. The goal is to identify through DNA as many boys are possible. They also hope to determine how they died.

Given that some of the surviving men, who said they were victims of lashings, beatings and sexual assault have been waiting 50 years for answers, any clue, they are prepared to wait a little longer — they are that close to finding some sense of closure, though not, necessarily, justice.

Credit the University of South Florida for taking the lead; state Attorney General Pam Bondi for petitioning the courts to exhume the remains; the state Legislature for providing $200,000 and the National Institute of Justice for last week coming through with a $423,000 grant.

Who’s the goat here? Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who choosing to “see, speak and hear no evil,” in July initially prohibited the USF archaeological team from excavating and identifying the remains.

Five years ago, a group of men came forth with horrifying anecdotes of physical and sexual abuse at the school in the 1950s and ’60s: Guards who were inhuman monsters, bloody beatings, sexual assaults. When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found no evidence of foul play, and for some reason wouldn’t use ground-penetrating radar to examine the campus graveyards — one for blacks, one for whites — it could have ended there. Enter the team from USF, which found at least 50 potential grave shafts.

Some secrets are not made to be kept, especially those of brutality meted out by state institutions. So much has changed in the areas of advocacy, best practices and juvenile-justice policy that the notion of “rape rooms” and “lashings” should never return.

That said, troubled kids can still be at the mercy of the authorities who watch over them. In 2007, Martin Lee Anderson, 14, was brutally beaten by guards at a boot camp for juvenile delinquents in Panama City hours before he died. A nurse watched. Video caught it all. Sick teens in juvy have died because no one called for fire-rescue. Last month, an officer punched a 14-year-old girl in a psychiatric hospital.

Florida must vigilantly work to avoid the horrors of the past.


©2013 The Miami Herald

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